Welcoming back a two-time comeback winner: pelicans

·5 min read

May 19—GRANITE FALLS

— With a full-size mount of a white pelican standing at his side and a small audience before him, Kory Klebe made his opening pitch.

"My teacher said my big mouth would never get me anywhere and here I am in Granite Falls," said Klebe, the environmental education and shooting sports coordinator for the

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center

near Spicer.

His audience came to hear Klebe as the Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce hosted a "Welcome Back Pelicans" event on May 11 to celebrate the birds' spring migratory return. Klebe spoke at Sorlien Park overlooking the

Minnesota River

, where pelicans bobbed in the churning waters just below the municipal dam.

The welcome back slogan could have a double meaning. As Klebe explained to his audience, white pelicans almost disappeared from Minnesota following the state's settlement by Europeans. There were no reported pelican nests in the state after 1878, "largely due to human persecution," according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Big bird, easy to shoot like passenger pigeons and things like that," Klebe told his audience.

Pelicans across North America also declined in numbers, along with bald eagles, due to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result of bio-accumulation, there was enough of the pesticide in the birds to deplete them of the calcium needed for eggs. Reproduction suffered as the birds accidentally "squished" the fragile eggs in their nest, he pointed out.

The big bird's comeback in Minnesota began in 1968, when 70 nests were found on an island in Marsh Lake in the upper watershed of the Minnesota River. White pelicans are colonial birds and prefer to nest in large numbers on islands or peninsulas where predators like raccoons and coyotes have difficulty reaching.

Today,

Marsh Lake is considered the second-largest breeding colony of white pelicans in North America

. In the early 2000s, as many as 20,000 pairs of pelicans nested there. Those numbers plummeted to 8,000 pairs in 2015, believed largely due to disturbance by people as well as predators.

The nesting area is protected and their numbers today appear to be good, according to Walt Gessler, manager of the Lac qui Parle wildlife area. When contacted earlier this week, he said an annual banding and survey of nesting numbers were not yet completed. His observations made from a distance showed things looked good. "We stay out of there as much as we can," he said in reference to the policy to minimize disturbance of the nesting area.

The late Dr. Al Grewe of St. Cloud State University began the banding and research of the Marsh Lake pelicans in 1972. It has been carried out since, with the exception of the two pandemic years.

The banding revealed that the pelicans of Marsh Lake migrate each year to the Gulf of Mexico. They spend the winter in the southern U.S. and Mexico. Some travel as far as Guatemala and Honduras to winter over.

Those returning are looking for boyfriends and girlfriends, according to Klebe, and show it. That bump visible on the pelican's large beak? The knob, also called a horn, is believed to be a sign of fertility. It does not grow on a pelican's beak until he or she is over three years of age and falls off after mating each year.

Klebe said that Dick Clayton, retired naturalist at Sibley State Park, once told him that he had collected a box of the knobs.

Sibley State Park is but one of many places to find the birds. Klebe said pelicans love Minnesota for its shallow lakes and the easy prey they find in them.

The birds can be the cause of consternation for anglers. Many residents on Big Kandiyohi Lake in Kandiyohi County bemoaned their large numbers on its waters last summer for that reason.

But Klebe said pelicans don't deserve a bad rap for taking fish. First of all, they only eat what they need each day, he added.

They use their large bill to scoop up the fish. They cannot dive for walleye or other game fish that prefer deeper waters, he explained. They consume mainly bullheads and carp and other so-called rough fish, as well as salamanders and the like, he said.

Yet eat they must. Pelicans are one of the largest birds in Minnesota. They have the second largest wingspan of all the birds in North America. With a wingspan that can average nine feet, they are second only to the condor, according to Klebe.

The wingspan is needed. They can weigh seven to 25 pounds and stand three to five feet in height. Yet they are appreciated as graceful fliers and are expert at riding the updrafts.

They are just as fun to watch in the water. They'll scoop up as much as three gallons of water in their large bills to catch fish. They empty the water and swallow the fish head first.

Pelicans will also hunt together, forming a circle to herd their prey.

Another interesting aspect of pelicans is their feet. They have webbing between all four of their toes. Most waterfowl have webbing between three of their four toes, Klebe explained.

Audience members had plenty of questions for Klebe, including the big one: Do pelicans drop scat while they fly? An audience member had the answer. Yes, he said, while telling how his car's windshield was once covered by it. "Windshield wipers won't cut it," he added.

Running out of trick questions for Klebe, audience members asked him what he knew about river squid. The community hosts an annual "squid fest" in September.

"I know absolutely nothing about river squid," Klebe confessed. But at Prairie Woods, he said he often asks his guests if they've ever seen the elusive Minnesota walrus. He has yet to hear a yes to that question. Of course, that's because it's elusive, he said.